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Can We Find a Better Way to Melt Snow?

America uses tons of rock salt to de-ice roads, but the chemical is harmful to the environment and concrete. Emerging methods could reduce the need for machines, salt, and high snowplow budgets.

Truck on road spreading deicing salt.
(Shutterstock)
Last month, following four years of relatively mild winters, a severe storm blanketed the eastern seaboard, giving much of the nation more than a foot of snow. Over Christmas week, another storm covered the Midwest, causing dangerous driving conditions. This has put the snow removal process — and how it might improve — in renewed focus for local and state officials.  

Snow removal is indeed an expensive fact of life in the northern U.S., and it can be tough on municipal and state budgets, because snowfall itself is unpredictable. In one recent winter, for example, clearing expenses in Portland, Maine, were $400,000 more than budgeted, opening a serious hole in the total state budget for snow removal of $30.8 million. There are many indirect fiscal impacts: Both snowplow trucks and de-icing salt shorten the functional life of concrete. The salt causes interior and exterior rust on cars. And there are environmental impacts: The rock salt that most public works departments (DPWs) use to melt snow causes toxic runoff, harming wildlife and drinking water

So there is a clear need for something that would better melt snow once it hits road surfaces, without the added damage to roads, cars and the environment. Research and innovation from academia and the private sector are revealing alternatives.

A company called Road Solutions Inc. is promoting a product called Geomelt 55, a beet sugar-based material that it claims is more effective and better for the environment than rock salt. It says Geomelt 55 works at temperatures down to minus 25, while rock salt isn't effective below 18 degrees. It also claims Geomelt 55 reduces corrosion levels by 70 percent, causing it to cut per-lane-mile snow removal costs by 30 percent, and adding six to seven years to the life of snow removal equipment. 

The first jurisdiction to contract with Road Solutions was Boone County, Ind. More recent customers include the DPWs of New York City, Washington, D.C., and Cincinnati, and the DOTs in New Jersey and Missouri. 

Future methods may eliminate the need for salt altogether. A research team based at Drexel University and Purdue University developed a means of melting snow through concrete itself. The researchers do this by mixing paraffin oil, which is sold commercially and commonly found in candles, into the concrete before pouring it. According to Dr. Hadi Esmaeeli, one of the project researchers, this strategy was tried on airport runways, then applied to roads. Now the idea is gaining the attention of DOTs in Pennsylvania, Indiana and North Carolina. 

Esmaeeli says that while the paraffin oil has proven effective at melting snow, the challenge has been ensuring that it doesn’t leak upwards onto road surfaces, which would cause slickness. He says larger-scale tests, such as treating a full road segment, need to be done in order to confirm that this use of paraffin oil is safe. If the material ends up working, it would substantially cut labor and vehicle costs. 

“Instead of using the conventional technology [such as] snowplows, de-icing chemicals or road salt, we can use some materials which are already embedded in the concrete,” Esmaeeli says. “There’s no need for any person to turn it on and off.” He thinks the concept could also apply to sidewalks. 

Another alternative is to melt snow through electricity. Dr. Christopher Tuan, a civil engineer at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, has tested this idea on airport runways. The option uses currents generated by steel rods and industrial byproducts such as coke breeze powder to heat the runway surface. 

A more ambitious option, but one grounded in existing technology, is to install heaters beneath roads. A company called Gambrick already does this for residential driveways, utilizing a system of underground hot water pipes. It would be tougher to scale this idea up to entire roads, though, because it requires lots of fixed infrastructure and maintenance. The paraffin-based solution, by contrast, would be self-supporting — once it is put into concrete mixes and poured, the roads could melt snow on their own without further human intervention.  

Any of these approaches might prove to be a groundbreaking innovation. They could prevent DOTs from having to hire expensive labor, buy and maintain large amounts of equipment, and spread salt in an annual process that costs millions and harms the environment. 

This article had additional reporting from Market Urbanism Report research staffer Ethan Finlan.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.

A journalist who focuses on American urban issues. He can be reached at scott@marketurbanismreport.com or on Twitter at @sbcrosscountry.
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